Retinal Implants Bring Hope to the Blind
Retinal implants could allow the blind to partially recover their sight. At the Vision Institute in Paris, two blind men explained how their artificial retinas work to health minister Marisol Touraine.
Suffering from pigmentary retinopathy, a hereditary disease causing progressive loss of vision, Jean, 72, and Claude, 60 wear a prosthetic device designed to partially restore their sight. Such medical progress could concern thousands of French people who suffer from the disease.
Since his retina operation two years ago, Jean still remembers the first time he wore his glasses. “It was phenomenal. I hadn’t seen in 20 years, and suddenly there was all of this. I said (to the doctors) “it was like fireworks”. Those fireworks were the flashes that enabled him to see shapes, movement and contrast.
At the age of eighteen Jean was diagnosed with a congenital disease. “I was told ‘At the age of 50 or 60 you might become blind’.” On public transport, he used to bump into people because they were not in his field of view, he told us. At work, he went from one manual job to another, and admits to having hidden his problem for a long time, afraid he would be fired. At 51 he lost his sight completely. It was around the age of 18 that Claude, who lives in Avignon, started to have blurred vision. Glasses managed to correct what he thought was simply myopia, but now illness has caught up with him.
“When I was offered artificial retinas, I said yes right away” said Claude emphatically . “It was a gift from above” added his son Julien. “I hope to recover some of my vision, gain more independence and watch TV”, said this retired farmer whose brothers are also affected by pigmentary retinopathy. Only five months after the surgery, it is however too early to perceive any possible changes.
Jean assures us he is able to go walking with his wife, often avoiding obstacles all by himself. He has also succeeded in estimating a person’s height or even spotting a match on the table and grasping it. “It has changed my life a little,” he told us.
Artificial retinas from 50 to 60 pixels
To perceive visual information the patient wears a pair of goggles equipped with a miniature camera and a portable electronic device which relays the visual data to the eye implant. The latter, grafted to the retina transforms visual information into electrical stimulations which are sent to the brain, Serge Picaud, director of research at the Vision Institute, told us. The patient can perceive at best 50 to 60 pixels in black, white or grey. This will help him to have a better sense of direction but he won’t see colors, he explained.
To improve their vision, the patients are subjected to rehabilitation exercises: recognizing numbers, letters, or objects of different sizes, or shades of grey. The aim is to stimulate memory because these prostheses are intended for people who were previously able to see. The long term objective is to help patients become independent again, to be able to recognize faces, and then read complex texts,” explained Serge Picaud.
Currently, fewer than 10 people have a retinal implant in France, including Jean and Claude, for whom the intervention was fully reimbursed by social security. Between 20000 and 40000 people suffer from pigmentary retinopathy in France.